The Upside Down Nature of Church Budgets

Imagine receiving this pitch from the American Cancer Society:

"Donate $100 today, and $15 of it will go directly to cancer research and to alleviate the suffering of cancer patients! Better still, $50 of it will be used to pay a lecturer who holds weekly meetings to explain why cancer is bad, why donating to the Society is good, and what cancer patients did to give themselves the disease! The other $35 will pay for our building, our other staff, general overhead, fundraising costs and for spreading the good word about the value of being against cancer."

Would you send money?

Whenever I see debates on the topic of "Is religion a force for good in the world?" or something similar, the skeptical side usually stipulates to the point that people who are motivated by religion perform acts of charity, and the argument either goes in the direction of comparing people's motivations for acts of charity or in the direction of a blame game for various evils.

The point that never seems to be made is the actual financial cost of religious charity. Religion uses its tax exempt status and position in society to drain billions of dollars away from much more effective secular charities each year. Religious giving is much more of a Ministers Jobs Program than a means of helping the poor, sick or disadvantaged.

Very few churches make their budgets available for inspection, so we have to rely on surveys, but from what I can tell, church budgets are the mirror opposite of the budgets of secular charities.

Your Church put out a report in 2002 showing that for the churches surveyed, the average expense on "outreach" was 15%. In his book The Almost Church, consultant Mike Durall says Protestant denominations spend 10 to 29 percent of their budgets on outreach, with a national average of 16%. One of the best known consultants on church administration, Lyle Shaller, recommends churches budget 15% for outreach.

A somewhat contradictory viewpoint comes from a chart by LifeWay Research, which shows that churches on average spend 5% on "missions and evangelism", so unless a good portion of the 9% that goes to "other" is charity, their figures are much worse than Your Church reported.

As for secular charities, a quick perusal of GuideStar or Charity Navigator will confirm for you the rule of thumb for non-religious non-profit organizations that no more than 15% of revenue should be spent on overhead, and 75%-85% of the budget should support the organization's mission. (There are wonderful details at, and in this report:

I know reading budget statistics is boring, but the point seems really compelling to me. If you donate $100 to an average church, $15 will be used for charity. If you donate $100 to an average community service nonprofit, $85 will be used for charity. If your goal is to help the needy, your money will go 5 times farther with secular charities than it will with churches.

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Comment by Jason on December 6, 2010 at 7:26pm
Or just look at what kind of car the pastor is driving. Is he driving a Civic or a Land Rover?


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